How do I teach my son to be a man, when I don’t even know what that means?

Photo by Steve Shreve on Unsplash

My son is crying; his five year old face twisted in rage.

“It’s not fair, he yells.” Then louder, “IT’S NOT FAIR!” before storming from the kitchen, slamming the door for good measure.

He is not always like this. He can be a surprisingly empathetic child: good natured; thoughtful; a little shy, perhaps, but he seems to make friends easily. Sometimes, he can even be reasoned with.

“Okay,” he will resignedly concur, when it is explained that, all things considered, Arctic Roll is not the healthiest breakfast choice — at least not on a school day. But other times, if denied the one thing he wants, when he wants it, this screaming, door-slamming, raging little boy is the result.

And I have to hang my head in shame as I acknowledge to myself once again, that he really is just like me.

Like all kids, I knew how to play my parents: when to turn on the waterworks for maximum impact; when to turn on the charm. But parents are easy. All parents know when tears are real; they know not to give in to juvenile emotional blackmail; they know this kind of behaviour must be ignored, that to give in would only equate to ‘positive-reinforcement-of-negative-behaviour.’ Parents know this. But parents also have mortgages to pay, houses to clean, clothes to wash, meals to cook, bums to wipe, teeth to brush, jobs to go to… Parents haven’t got the time, much less the energy, to put up with kids throwing tantrums because their little sister is using the red bowl and the blue bowl makes the Cheerios taste disgusting and they absolutely MUST HAVE THE RED BOWL!

In a situation like this, there are only two types of parent: those who cave in to their children’s demands right away, and those that hold-firm for ooh, perhaps as much as five minutes or more before caving in to their children’s demands.

Grandparents, of course, are made of sterner stuff. I vividly recall being dragged screaming from Barry Hanby’s newsagents, one wet afternoon, refusing to accept that my grandparents were not going to buy me a Kevin Keegan Action-Replay letraset transfer wall-chart, in spite of my protestations. Clearly they didn’t know the rules: I say I want something, responsible adult says ‘No’; I remember to ask in whiny voice, adult stills says ‘No’; I slump to the ground in a sea of angry tears, perhaps punching the floor for good measure, adult capitulates, I stop crying, everyone’s happy.

But not this time. I was forced to keep crying, my pleas becoming ever louder and of higher frequency, as I was dragged across the road and bundled into the car. Only when the car was moving did I accept that I had lost this one and started thinking about what I wanted for tea instead.

So when my son behaves like this, storming off and slamming doors, I can’t help but be reminded of my own childhood and, inevitably, of my dad.

Dad died in heart surgery, when I was eleven and, in the years that followed, as I hit my teens, my behaviour only worsened. I still tried to play my mum, only now it wasn’t Kevin Keegan transfers I wanted, it was lifts to friends’ houses; it was feigning illness to get off school; it was throwing parties. I knew my mum felt guilty that, since she had been forced to work full-time after dad’s death, I had to spend a lot of time on my own. Guilt can be a powerful motivator.

For a long-time, looking back over my life, I had blamed this kind of behaviour on my not having a dad. But watching my son display the very same characteristics now, reminds me that that anger was always a part of me. Where did it come from? Is it my genes? Was my dad the same as a kid? The anger is still there, although to a much lesser degree. People think I have calmed down but, as a father of three, I’m usually just too knackered to protest about anything too much. What goes around, comes around huh?

I had long been fearful about the prospect of raising a boy. Sixteen years ago, when expecting my eldest child, I was desperately relieved to have a girl. Somehow I just didn’t feel that I had the capacity to raise a boy.

When dad died, my eldest brother was already at University and middle brother was just about to leave. There was, then, just me and mum. There were people who tried to fill the gap. One of dad’s best friends decided that the best way for me to deal with my grief was to learn how to shoot things. Given that this was England, this only meant using an air-pistol, but it turned out I was something of a natural and I enjoyed taking pot-shots at tin cans in the back yard.

One summer evening, he took me rat-shooting at the rubbish dump. We crept around as quietly as we qcould, finding ourselves a promising position and waited in excited silence. Suddenly, a scurrying sound drew our attention to the foot of an overflowing skip. A rat was sat completely in the open, maybe 20 feet from us. My ‘uncle’ gestured to it. I raised the gun, the rat in my sights; it was fat and lazy and I knew that I could hit it easily.

“Go on, Danny,” he whispered.

But as my finger tightened around the trigger, I stalled. I don’t know exactly what it was, but somehow, in the midst of grief, I had no appetite to take a life for sport. I aimed high and wide, the pellet ricocheting of the side of the skip and the rat running for cover. It was the last time I went shooting.

From afar, my brothers too attempted to fill the gap left by my dad, to guide me, keep me on the straight and narrow. But, the truth is that I wouldn’t let them. In some ways it was simply that I didn’t want anyone to replace my dad. But I also suspect that I knew I was onto a good thing. In dad’s absence I had acquired a vast amount of freedom and I took full advantage of it. I didn’t want anyone muscling in and taking it from me.

So, having lived most of my life, be it through circumstance or choice, without male role models, and having been such a difficult child myself, the prospect of raising a boy, of trying to steer and guide him towards being a man, has been one that has filled me with something like dread. How can I hope to be a father to a son, without the experience of being a son to a father. What life experience, what insight am I lacking?

But why don’t I have this same sense of insecurity about my daughters? Why should raising a son be any different? What it boils down to are my own neuroses about masculinity. How do I teach my son to be a man, when I’m so uncertain of what that even means?

One result of the lack of male influence on my life is that I have never had much time for alpha-male posturing. I have always been more comfortable in the company of women than men. To this day, I have never been on a stag do — this despite the fact that I myself have been married twice — preferring to seek out mixed company. I suspect that most of the male friends I do have, share that outlook to a greater or lesser degree.

I can only guess what my dad would have thought of me. Not ever having had a grown-up relationship with him, it is difficult to really know the ways in which we are similar or different. Would he have been proud of the man I have become? How would he expect me to raise his grandson?

But ultimately, what does any of this matter anyway? So, I lacked male role models. What I had instead, was a phenomenal female guide. My mum was strong enough to soldier on after dad died, to pick up the pieces and provide stability and security; wise enough and calm enough to create a safe space, physically and temporally, for me to express my anger, my grief, however inarticulately, without running the risk of causing myself or anyone else any real harm.

I have changed since I was my son’s age. It is more than mere laziness that has made me calmer than I was as a child. The essence of my character my be the same but it has been tempered by the influence of my mum. Thanks to her, her love and guidance in those formative years following dad’s death and ever since, I have become, less aggressive, less demanding of getting my own way. I have become… softer.

If this makes me less-masculine then, frankly, who cares. These are the qualities, the experiences, that I can pass on to my son. And if I do so successfully then he will become a young man of which I will be very proud. All I can do is my best to raise him as a good person, ready to face the world, not with anger, but with love. And, thanks to my mum and my wife and my daughters, it is not as if I have to do it on my own.

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